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15 Nov 2002 : Column 283—continued

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that crucial issue. Does he agree that not all the students who appear in the figures as dropping out actually do drop out, because some move to another degree course? Under the Government's proposals, however, they would be counted twice. Does he accept that we need a comprehensive and cogent way to track young people, particularly after the age of 18, so that we can produce realistic statistics that we can all use as a starting point for debating the issue?

Mr. Green: An alarming degree of consensus is emerging. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but neither of us should be surprised that an element of double counting is coming into the Government's education statistics. We have seen it everywhere else, so it is no surprise that we are seeing it in the higher education participation ratings.

I have referred to one international comparison, and I want to refer to another, which should be at the heart of the Government's education policy: Britain is bottom of the OECD league for the participation of 16 to 18-year-olds in further education and training. There is a genuine numbers crisis there, yet the Government are chasing the wrong figure. Of course we all want to widen participation and access to education. That is yet another issue on which there is no division between the two sides of the House. I have already acknowledged that the problem is not peculiar to the Government—it did not start in 1997, but goes back many decades—but their solution of shoehorning into university young people who may not benefit from it is not the right one.

We have debated the benefits to young people of becoming graduates in terms of employability, and I commend to the Secretary of State the most recent edition of XGraduate Review", which is produced by VT Careers Management and published jointly with The Guardian—I should be on a retainer from The Guardian this morning. The point, which is counter-intuitive, at least according to the Government's thinking, is this:

I acknowledge that that is just one survey, but quite a lot of anecdotal evidence appears to confirm that what the Government seek to do will con young people into thinking that the historic figures for graduates' increased employability and earning power will continue, whatever the percentage of graduates. The survey shows the first signs of that relationship breaking down, and I urge the Government to think seriously about this issue.

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There is a real crisis, which the Government have not yet addressed. I am not sure whether the Secretary of State mentioned the 14-19 Green Paper—I apologise if he did. If he did mention it, he certainly glossed over it quickly, whereas it requires a huge amount of attention and a genuine national debate. Last year the number of level 2 and level 3 qualifications—the sub-degree qualifications—that were awarded in vocational topics dropped by more than 40 per cent., and the Learning and Skills Development Agency estimates that the proportion of poor or unsatisfactory grades in work-based learning has nearly tripled since 1998. Those are genuine crisis figures, which the Government should address.

Although the Queen's Speech touched on some of the problems that the Government face, it missed an opportunity to deal with many other problems faced by our schools and colleges today. We look forward to the publication of Mike Tomlinson's final report on the A-level crisis, but everyone is entitled to ask why the situation was allowed to arise. We have had another flurry today from Mr. Porkess and it is clear that the aftershocks of this summer's A-level crisis will be with us for some time to come. I hope that we do not hear again from the Government that the crisis surrounding A-levels, which threw the futures of hundreds of thousands of young people into doubt and wrecked confidence in the exam system, would never have happened had we stopped criticising the system. If the Secretary of State goes down that line, he will cheapen the debate on this vital area. Scrutiny is our job in opposition, and we make no apologies for exposing the incompetence perpetrated by the Government.

The Secretary of State is right when he says that he has to ensure that public confidence in the integrity and quality of our public examinations is maintained and strengthened, and we trust that he will keep to his promise to implement the Tomlinson recommendations.

I also hope that the Secretary of State will deal effectively with another crisis that was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech: the discipline crisis. A recent survey by the NASUWT showed that in one school in Wales, a year 10 pupil who had been excluded on five different occasions for violence and vandalism set fire to the school toilets and was permanently excluded by the school. His exclusion was overturned by an independent appeals panel, which held that the arson was not deliberate, despite a police caution given to the pupil. It also showed that a year 8 pupil in a school in the north-east, who had a lengthy record of disruptive behaviour, including bullying and assaulting other pupils, was understandably permanently excluded after hitting a teacher on the head. An independent appeals panel has overturned that exclusion as well. As the Secretary of State knows, there are many such cases.

It is not surprising that those disciplinary problems help to drive teachers out of the profession. The Secretary of State will acknowledge in his honest moments that teacher morale is at an all-time low. Perhaps surprisingly, according to the National Union of Teachers—I shall spread my favours around the teaching unions this morning—pay is not even one of the top three reasons for teachers leaving the profession. The three top reasons are workload, pupil behaviour and Government initiatives—all problems of the

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Government's own making. The Secretary of State has told teachers, XIt's our job in government to support you and your profession. It is not for us to tell you how to teach." Having said that, he owes it to teachers and their pupils to heed his words, because without teachers there can be no teaching and learning.

The Secretary of State asked about our policy, and I am always pleased to use the opportunity of debates such as this to advance Conservative policy. As he said, at our party conference we announced a series of education proposals with the common theme of trust. The theme of trust informs all of our proposals. That is what distinguishes us from the Government, for whom the language of trust comes easily but who, in reality, are incapable of trusting heads, teachers and parents.

We believe that our proposals for education reform are a radical and much-needed step towards realising our goal that no child be left behind. Unlike the Government, we believe in trusting schools by devolving budgets to them wherever possible and reducing the paperwork that heads and teachers must submit. School funding has become ever more complicated; it needs to become ever more simple. We will give real autonomy to schools. We will reduce the number of unnecessary documents that heads and teachers have to wade through, because we know that when teachers are trusted to teach, free from the dead hand of central interference, schools flourish. Our experience of city technology colleges proved that. While I am in a generous mood, let me say that I am glad that the Government have continued with that raft of Conservative policy.

We want to trust not only schools but parents. Let me discuss our state scholarship scheme, which the Secretary of State mentioned. The scheme will entitle pupils to be educated at a wider range of schools. It is not simply a reinvention of the assisted places scheme; it will create a new sector of schools, as exists in many other countries. In Holland, the USA and Denmark, parents have a right to found and run new schools if they are not happy with what is on offer. Our scheme will mean that parents will no longer be forced to accept places at schools to which they do not want to send their children. Thus we shall break the cycle of under-achievement into which too many young people still fall.

The state scholarship scheme will break the monopoly link between state funding and state provision, allowing charities, parents and other groups to establish new schools, which would then receive the money from the state—the state scholarship. Virtually every other developed country in the world knows that Governments do not have a monopoly of wisdom on good practice and that real innovation comes through genuine diversity—not in eight-page documents sent from Whitehall.

The Government have argued that the non-state sector is somehow not capable of or willing to provide high-quality education. Let me point out to Government Members that LEAs already spend #250 million a year on special educational needs contracts with non-state providers. Those offer the best care and education to some of our most vulnerable children, and we should not deny all children the opportunity of benefiting from such expertise.

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